Making Your Characters Really Miserable: The Black Moment

With the whole rebel alliance counting on him, Luke Skywalker has one shot left to kill the Death Star.  His on-board targeting system has failed to work.  The Death Star has cleared the moon and is about to blast the planet killing everyone. And Darth Vader has Luke in his crosshairs.

Talk about a Black Moment for our hero!

Every movie, every book, every hero or heroine has their black moment.  It is that point at which things cannot get any worse for the H/H and they are forced to make a decision to act, usually doing the one thing that they would never have been caught dead doing in a million years.

In Star Wars, Luke’s black moment compels him to turn off his targeting computer and trust the Force to save the day.  And he does.  HEA or really HFN (until the Empire Strikes Back LOL).

Black Moments are essential in romance writing.  According to the website Learn the Elements of A Novel:  Structure and Plot, the “black moment” is the point in the novel “at which all is lost and the goal cannot be achieved.”  By this point in the story the hero has to struggle against external and internal forces until he/she reaches “a ‘Black’ moment, where the stakes are highest and danger at its worst. During this moment, the hero draws upon the new strengths or lessons he’s learned in order to take action and bring the story to a conclusion.”

When crafting the Black Moment, many writers have found the advice of Donald Maas extremely helpful.  Anna Campbell, in her excellent article, “Illuminating The Black Moment” cites Maas’s advice as being most helpful to her:

1.)  Work out the one thing your character would never do, then make him/her do it.

2.)  Work out the one thing your character would never sacrifice, then make him/her sacrifice it.

3.)  Work out your character’s greatest fear then make him/her face that.

Using one, two, or all three of these wrenching scenarios will help you craft the darkest black moment imaginable for your H/H.  And it is a matter of craft to pick and choose the perfect set of circumstances that will torment each particular hero/heroine from the beginning of the novel.  Anna Campbell suggests that the seeds of the black moment should be sown in the first pages of the novel, so we see the potential for it develop throughout.  And each Black Moment must be tailored to each individual hero.

To my mind, one of the best examples of crafting the Black Moment is in Jo Beverley’s historical romance Devilish.  The Marquess of Rothgar has vowed never to marry because his mother exhibited signs of madness and killed her second child. (We have been told this for four books previously.)  Then, Rothgar meets a woman who is the perfect match for him, his soul mate in every way who is deeply in love with him also but who, at the King’s command, must marry.  So Rothgar must choose to lose the love of his life or risk sowing the seeds of madness in future generations of his family.  (Read the book to find out how this Black Moment was resolved!)

And the blacker the moment, the sweeter the ultimate pay-off for the reader.   When, against all odds, the hero or heroine does the one thing he would never do, sacrifices the one thing he would never give up, or overcomes the crippling fear he/she has been struggling with, the reader experiences an emotional catharsis, a purging of all the built-up tension they have endured as the hero struggled.  The tighter you have wound the suspense, the greater the relief when things come right again.

I usually find myself struggling with crafting the perfect Black Moment, though in Almost Perfect, my erotic contemporary that releases on Friday, I pretty much knew about half-way through plotting what I wanted that moment to be.  Again, I won’t spoil it for you, but I tried to paint that moment with the inky black strokes of a midnight dreary.  I want to hear the reader shriek “No!  You can’t do that!” with a sob in their voice that would be sweet music to my ears.  I think authors not only torture their heroes, but their readers as well.  Because catharsis is good for all souls.

As a writer, do you struggle with creating the black moment?  Or does it come naturally to you?  Readers, do you enjoy this exquisite form of torture from the pen of your favorite authors?  Do you secretly thrill to be brought to the edge of your seat, as your hero/heroine is brought to the brink of destruction?  What is your favorite black moment in a romance novel?  Please share!

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18 Responses to Making Your Characters Really Miserable: The Black Moment

  1. I love reading a good black moment, especially when it’s in a romance novel. Sometimes the little black moments that lead up to the biggest black moment keep me on the edge of my seat!

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  2. Carrie-Anne says:

    The black moment in my Russian novel sequel (which I just finished last month) comes a few chapters away from the end. The best part for me was that it was completely different than how I’d envisioned it when I first got the plans for a sequel in my head many years ago. During the end of the temporary separation she insisted on to save her marriage, the female main character is tricked into adultery by her oldest child’s blood father and her husband’s former best friend, now worst enemy, while she’s delirious and out of it after a difficult birth. I think it’s even blacker now because she was manipulated and deceived (in her feverish state, she believed it was her husband, and she was also constantly given morphine and other bad things) instead of willingly committing adultery. And it’s even worse because the trickster sent her husband letters bragging about the “affair” and running him down, including one letter he pretended had been written by the wife.

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  3. Sue says:

    Well thank you for that – I will save this for both my WIP – Now there’s something else to be added…oh, I can see this for romanance stories but are BM necessary if not romance. Actually you mostly answered that question.. they are… thanks again

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    • jennajaxon says:

      If you have an eye out for them, you can find the Black Moment in probably every piece of literature with the exception, perhaps, of absurdist plays (no plot, hence no black moment). But it’s good to know it needs to be there so you can plan for it. Glad I helped–sorry I gave you one more thing to do! 🙂

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  4. Jenna,
    That was a great blog. My problem is not coming up with the black moment but putting it off long enough.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Been there too, Ella! Although you can have more than one such moment. You just have to put the Big Black Moment off long enough. In Devilish there’s a scene where the heroine is abducted and is about to be raped and no help in sight. But the BBM comes about 3-4 chapters later at the end of the novel. Just thinking about it makes me want to read the book again! 🙂

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  5. Daryl Devore says:

    First off – great black moment movie choice.
    second – three great suggestions for putting black moments into a story.

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  6. My stories vary from fairly lighthearted (even silly) to completely twisted. Even the goofiest, however, has its Black Moment. It might just be a little closer to gray with yellow polka-dots. 🙂 Great post, Jenna!

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    • jennajaxon says:

      Love that visual, Trish! LOL Yes, the research suggests that even a lighthearted comedy must have its Black Moment. Think of an episode of your favorite sit-com (mine’s Frazier) and you’ll find a Black Moment in there. It’s part of the structure we as readers crave in our perverse way. 🙂

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  7. Black moments are fun to write–although sometimes challenging. Great post!

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  8. Brenda says:

    I love writing the black moment. That moment is what can make or break a great story. All has to be tossed on the table for the characters. I guess we need the storm before the calm.
    Before I begin writing a new story, I always make sure I have the B.M–hehehehe–mapped out.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      I did enjoy writing the Black Moment for Almost Perfect. I felt wicked but so good. And as a reader I hate/love a good Black Moment. It’s the thrill of bad things happening to other people so you can experience it vicariously. Same reason I read horror novels. I love to see what’s going to happen though I don’t want it happening to me! Thanks for coming by, Brenda. Hope all your B.M.s are wonderful! LOL

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  9. caseamajor says:

    The Black moment is so very delicious for the writer and gut wrenching for the character – and the readers. So far I haven’t taken my characters to the deep darkest. I just can’t bring myself to.

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    • jennajaxon says:

      I’ve shied away from really black moments, except in my medieval story. I torture everyone in those books. I had to make myself write a couple of chapter because I so did not want to do what I had to do. But it’s my favorite story line, so I’ll continue to pile it on in revisions. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, Casea! 🙂

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